As I See It: The Big Dream
by Victor Rozek
Not everything that is good for the economy is good for the people. No one argues that; we just don't quite know what to do about it. Still, the impacts are sobering if you stop to examine them. McDonald's, for example, spends some two billion dollars each year churning out expert advertising and little plastic figurines to entice children to consume unhealthy amounts of junk food. Although undeniably profitable, their economic exertions have contributed to a doubling in childhood obesity and an alarming rise in Type II diabetes.
While McDonald's is nearly ubiquitous in urban centers, there are few places left in the world where Coca Cola is not readily available. I have personally traveled in remote regions of Nepal and in the jungles of Guatemala. Coke is available there. In fact, Coca Cola has so successfully saturated the globe that it claims its products account for 10 percent "of the total liquid intake of the world." That's about as appalling an economic statistic as can be imagined.
Where the world is heading is anyone's guess. Futurists are more successful at fabricating the hereafter than prophesying it. One thing is clear, however: IT technology and the people who create and tend to it are the enablers of our age. Computers have become more than tools; they are an extension and a magnification of human will. They create realities that were previously confined to the shadows of imagination. From the mapping of the genome and space travel to the global dissemination of pornography and the assault on privacy, dreams both fair and foul find their expression through the power of computers and the wizardry of software.
What dreams, then, are appropriate? As a nation, we seem to have lost the ability to dream, to hold a common vision, to be self-critical and self-correcting, to build on what is and to create what never was. That hunger for a higher vision once resonated throughout an entire generation when Martin Luther King Jr. stood before the Lincoln Memorial in the hot August sun and intoned his dream. Likewise, we were collectively inspired when President Kennedy spoke of going to the moon, and the nation breathlessly watched his dream manifest into a giant leap for mankind.
If ever we were given a chance to realize that our future, our very survival, is inextricably linked to our neighbor's, it was from the perspective of space. No borders, no nations, no place to hide. The president's younger brother Robert yearned to address the inequities and injustices, and he captured the spirit of the time when he declared, "Some people see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were, and say why not?" But two generations later, we seem to have lost our belief in the possibility of "why not?"
As enablers, IT professionals are in a unique position to dream of things that never were. There is an old axiom that energy flows where attention goes. What, then, are we attending to? Technology, of course; but we've come to view it as an end in itself, rather than as a means of achieving an energizing vision. We attend to commerce, to be sure. But although commerce is both worthy and necessary, is it enough? When we look back on our careers, will we find contentment in the knowledge that during our watch Coke was able to leverage leading-edge technology to double its percentage of the world's liquid intake?
In the abstract, most people express concern about excess and waste and injustice. They are saddened to leave their kids a planet where flotillas of garbage ride the oceans and Superfund sites stain the land. Most have compassion for the half of the world's population--some 3 billion people--who struggle to live on less than two dollars a day. Or, for that matter, the 30 million Americans in the retail and services sectors who somehow manage to survive on less than $8.75 an hour. Yes, we are concerned and most of us feel helpless to affect any of it.
But what if?
What if the IT community became a high-tech human-rights movement? That's my dream. What if those among us with a broader vision committed our skills and our command of the technology to alleviating some of the persistent and intransigent problems plaguing our species?
Information is power, and the Internet provides the means to share it. What might we share, and with whom? While still in prison, Vaclav Havel wrote, "Man must in some way come to his senses. . . . He must rebel against his role as a helpless cog in a gigantic and enormous machinery hurtling God knows where. He must discover again, within himself, a deeper sense of responsibility toward the world, which means responsibility toward something higher than himself."
In the context of serving a compelling vision, "higher" is a relative term and does not require injurious sacrifice. As Tom Peters recognized, it's not about doing everything 100 percent better; it's about doing 100 things 1 percent better. We can start small: tutor a child who has no access to computing technology, volunteer needed expertise in support of an organization whose mission you admire, or simply use the technology at your disposal to participate in the most elemental of democratic obligations--that of initiating critical dialogue with others in an atmosphere of honesty and shared regard. How might our national discourse be different if we approached it from a place of inquiry and curiosity, rather than ideology and intransigence?
If technology has the power to amplify problems, it also has the power to extend the reach of solutions. William Greider wrote of the American moment, the time when a nation at the apex of its power and influence must chart its course and chose its destiny. Are we, as Greider wrote, "capable of defying history," or will we simply be "another chapter in the rise and fall of muscular nation-states"? Surely, says Greider, "the American moment cannot be about accumulating more wealth or weaponry or territory." In other words, it cannot simply be about self-absorption.
Sadly, so much of the talent in our profession is wasted on angry displays of personal potency. If brilliant coders can spawn viruses and worms that infect millions of users, and hackers can break into banking systems, access medical records, gain control of a military satellite, disrupt networks, or take down a power grid, why not disrupt the activities of a pornographer or take down a crooked politician? If, as there seems to be among some highly skilled and easily bored members of the IT community, there is an unreasoning need to disrupt, why not disrupt something that warrants disruption? A disturbing article by Andrew Cockburn in the September issue of National Geographic chronicles the practice of 21st century slavery. Some 27 million people worldwide are bought and sold, held captive, and brutalized for profit. Our own nation is not immune from the practice. The more sophisticated human traffickers use computers to purchase human beings and to transfer payments. One would think that disrupting such activity, even temporarily, would be far more gratifying than filling anonymous e-mail boxes with a flood of junk mail.
With power comes obligation. A case can be made that we in the IT community control some of the most powerful technology ever devised. It's become a cliche to point out (not without some degree of wonderment) that today's laptops are more powerful and functional than the computers that first guided humans into space. So what, if they are only used to play Free Cell?
C.F. Kettering said we should all be concerned about the future because we will have to spend the rest of our lives there. The question is, will we spend them oblivious or awake, separate or connected--content to have the future create us or creating the future we want?
I'm curious. What dreams are compelling to you? What is urgent and worthy of your attention? And how can computing technology be applied in the service of your vision?
Author and activist Paul Hawken was once invited to an elementary school where he gave a talk to a class of third-graders. He told them that there are a billion people in the world who want to work but can't. A little girl raised her hand and asked him, "Is all the work done?"
It's a compelling question appropriate to the limitless potential of our nation, our technology, and our time.
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